Back in 1998, Saving Private Ryan reprised the glory days of GI Joes fighting nobly at Normandy, but it certainly didn’t spawn a comeback of World War II combat flicks. The once-honorable male-popular Hollywood genre has been hibernating post-Patton, since the Vietnam War went sour. Not only does nobody make new movies about World War II, nobody brings back the grand old ones — though a team of film historians went against the grain in 2004, restoring, and re-releasing in theaters, Sam Fuller’s 1980 soldier saga The Big Red One. But don’t march off to your local bijou expecting a revival series of the great Hollywood battle movies of WW2 including, say, my 1940s favorites: John Ford’s They Were Expendable (1945), Delmer Daves’s Pride of the Marines (1945), Raoul Walsh’s Objective, Burma! (1945), Lewis Milestone’s A Walk in the Sun (1945), and Allan Dwan’s Sands of Iwo Jima (1949). Imagine celluloid celebrations of American soldier boys landing at Palermo, or shouldering arms against “the Japs” at Bataan. For today’s audiences, these are even more dead in the water than cowboy shoot-’em-ups.
So I salute the Harvard Film Archive for mounting the three-month series “On All Fronts: World War II on Film,” gambling that there are curious people eager to attend. Besides me. Am I the only Hub resident counting the days till the rare, rare February 27 showing of Raoul Walsh’s The Naked and the Dead (1958)? Should I take Norman Mailer’s word that this adaptation of his novel is “one of the worst movies ever made”? I’m equally excited to have a second look at Sidney Lumet’s The Hill (1965; February 6). It’s not on tape or DVD, but I recall a spiffy anti-war military prison-camp movie, with extraordinary performances from Harry Andrews, Ian Bannen, and an offbeat Sean Connery in his sleek 007 days.
Not all the selections are in-battle movies. Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s La notte di San Lorenzo|The Night of the Shooting Stars (1982; February 15) is a miraculous memory movie of a Tuscan village occupied by the Nazis, perhaps cinema’s greatest triumph of magic realism. Foreign Correspondent (1940; February 20) is a fast-paced minor Alfred Hitchcock thriller in the Graham Greene espionage mold, with amiable Joel McCrea in the lead, and a chilling climax among Dutch windmills. Innocence Unprotected (1968; February 22) is the unknown masterpiece of the series, Dusan Makavejev’s hilarious, winning collage blending Serbia’s first movie, a kitsch superman melodrama, with the Nazi invasion of Yugoslavia.
Also this week? Kon Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plain (1959; February 7), a fierce, sometimes strident polemic against Japanese imperialism that shows the remnants of the once-proud army now dispirited and starving in the Philippines in the last days of WW2. What is the “monkey meat” that the ghoulish soldiers are gobbling to stay alive? And John Boorman’s widescreen Hell in the Pacific (1968; February 8), in which a US Marine (Lee Marvin) and a Japanese officer (Toshiro Mifune) somehow (it’s a kind of existential pic) end up on the same island. They face off Sergio Leone style, then Marvin makes like a chimp, swinging about in trees, peeing down on his enemy. Will they embrace? Will they kill each other? The two charismatic actors keep the movie hopping, but it’s really a stretched-out short.